WASHINGTON — The Army is using internal development and small-business ideas to figure out how to fire artillery faster, exploring every facet from how projectiles are stored all the way to automated reloading.
Brig. Gen. John Rafferty, who is in charge of Long-Range Precision Fires modernization, told Defense News in an interview ahead of the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference that he is “a little bit embarrassed” to describe to innovative small companies how the Army handles ammunition in an artillery battalion, realizing that the process hasn’t changed in over 50 years.
“When you evaluate the amount of time and man hours these soldiers doing these tasks, one-by-one unbanding projectiles and inspecting them one-by-one, inventorying them one-by-one," Rafferty said. "What if we could automate some of those tasks? And then how much more effective that unit would be in its operational mission, if those soldiers were preparing for the next mission, were doing reconnaissance, were sleeping, eating, doing maintenance, point security,” Rafferty said. “Would that unit be available for missions rather than be out because it has to resupply?”
The Army has teed up three lines of effort to tackle the entire chain of handling ammunition, loading and reloading in order to fire faster.
While capability garnered from these efforts could feed into current weapons, they will also be incorporated into the Extended Range Cannon Artillery system that the service is planning to deliver to the force in 2023, according to Rafferty.
That programs aims to increase the range and lethality of artillery, but will also have an increased rate of fire.
While the Army is busy determining which operational units will first get the new weapon, and how many of them, officials are also reconfiguring the existing architecture of its original prototype autoloader “to get one that’s a little bit easier to integrate but reducing the capacity,” Rafferty said.
The design effort for that is “on track” at the Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command Armaments Center, he said. “We’ll see a demonstration of that capability next year.”
The second line of effort is being managed out of Army Futures Command’s Army Applications Lab which turned to small business innovators to figure out a way to increase the rate of fire of self-propelled howitzers.
Through the lab, the Army launched the program using a Small Business Innovation Research-based (SIBR) Special Program Awards for Required Technology Needs (SPARTN) contracting mechanism.
The program is in the solicitation phase, Rafferty said, but seeks to attract small business to come in and map the interior process of the Howitzer and figure out where automation can be applied to help improve the rate of fire in other ways besides the autoloader the Army is developing internally.
The Army anticipates closing the solicitation phase over the next six weeks, Rafferty said, with a plan to select up to 15 small businesses to develop concepts over a short period of time. The service would then down-select to a smaller number to go into a prototyping phase, he said.
“The SIBR program is fantastic for casting a wide net and then bringing in and carrying enough forward for a short period of time at not an enormous expense,” Rafferty said.
While the SPARTN Fire Faster effort is focused on the interior of the Howitzer, the Army is also tapping into other small businesses to help solve handling artillery through automation across the logistics chain.
The Army picked six companies to work on ways to improve the currently cumbersome, taxing and sometimes risky munitions resupply system for field artillery units operating M109 Paladin howitzers at the beginning of 2020.
The Army has since down-selected to three companies who are working to deliver prototypes as part of the Field Artillery Autonomous Resupply (FAAR) effort, also being run through the Army Applications Lab. Those companies are working closely with operational units throughout the effort, Rafferty said.
Apptronik, a robotics company spun out of the Human Centered Robotics Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, is developing a “remarkably innovative” robotic arm to help with moving projectiles, Rafferty said.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Carnegie Robotics, which specializes in robotic sensors and platforms, and Actuate, which has developed artificial intelligence focused on computer vision software, are both working on “delivering a component to help us with ammunition inventory, inspection and management and visibility,” Rafferty said.
The companies are tackling how to take a very manual process that currently involves a clipboard, pen and paper and automate that system.
For example, on a Paladin howitzer, the section chief has to punch the number of projectiles and number of fuses by type and lot number into the automated fire control system, Rafferty said. “It’s a very complicated process,” he said, “and let’s be honest, we don’t really do that very well.”
Rafferty said, “You can only imagine how having an automated system, which we don’t have, for having visibility of [the loading process] will help with the sustainment and the resupply.”
The hope is to line up the capability developed through the Field Artillery Autonomous Resupply cohort and the SPARTN effort with the first platoon getting the new Extended Range Cannon Artillery weapon and see how it shakes out with the soldiers, according to Rafferty.
“We would have a chance to get a real comparison, a real evaluation of how it works, how it affects the operational concept, how it improves, or what its effect on the sustainment functions in our sustainment teams are; so that’s sort of the vision for that,” he said. "We’ve got a long way to go to get there.”
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.